A recent Washington Post article registers a complaint about all the allusions to the Virgin Mary each Christmas season. Evidently, these references make the author feel bad about herself because of a traumatic experience in her past.
I marvel at what people confess in public. Private journal entries are being published. What should be processed with a counselor or a small group of trusted friends is put out there in raw form. I’m not saying the author should keep this private because her past is shameful, but rather, because she still thinks it is. Being open about traumatic events can be healthy and very helpful. But publicly airing out unfinished business may not be constructive. We’re prone to use it to manipulate.
Don’t you know who I am?
Here’s how a lot of recent public dialogue comes across to me: “As a ________, I have had a very difficult time of it. Unless you too are a ________, then you cannot understand or speak into my experience. However, my experience gives me a very unique voice of authority. So, if you object to my opinion, it will be extremely offensive because you are objecting to me as a person. Good luck.
It’s becoming common to see people use personal experiences to chip away at shared meaning. Expressive individualism, a term coined by Emory sociologist Robert Bella, is the belief that an individual’s highest loyalty should be to himself or herself. True happiness, from this perspective, is obtained by the realization and expression of one’s core identity, which includes a person’s deepest desires, thoughts and beliefs. Translation: we make our own meaning.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate”
Expressive individualism has become a catalyst for our modern-day Babel. Pundits stand brazenly at the center of the universe. Throughout the news media, individual experiences are king. With opinions based primarily upon feelings and individual experience, what common ground remains for mutual understanding or even agreement? How are we supposed to have any shared meaning?
Don Henley said, There’s three sides to every story: Yours and mine and the cold, hard truth. On the other hand, stories that endure, like the one about a miraculous birth, help us think outside the limits of personal experience. Many would rather have company in their misery. And Dr. Phil asks: “How does that seem to be working?”
Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 1 Cor. 8:2